Literary characters worshiped as gods
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23-01-2015, 12:12 AM (This post was last modified: 23-01-2015 06:15 AM by ghostexorcist.)
Literary characters worshiped as gods
There is evidence that the ancient Chinese of the Chu Kingdom (c. 1030–223 BCE) revered the gibbon, the smallest of the extant apes, as a keeper of arcane knowledge. It was believed to have the ability to soak up life-prolonging energies and perform magical transformations. The creature was respected and not really worshiped, however. Evidence of an actual monkey cult active around the 13th-century is found in southern China. This may have been influenced by stories from the Ramayana, a 4th-century BCE Hindu epic, trickling into the country via merchants from Southeast Asia. A major character in the book is a monkey god with enormous strength called Hanuman.

Such indigenous and foreign primate stories eventually influenced the creation of the famous literary figure Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, from the Chinese classic Journey to the West (1592). The novel sees the simian character gain immortality and powers of transformation through Daoist austerities and later use his achievements to wreak havoc in heaven because the celestial hierarchy refuses to recognize him as a god. He is so powerful that the Buddha is called in to imprison him under an entire mountain range. Five hundred years later he is released to protect a Buddhist monk from all manner of monsters and demons on his quest to retrieve Buddhist scriptures from India.

What's interesting is the character became so popular that some people eventually began to worship him as a full-fledged god. For instance, during the Boxer Rebellion of the late 19th- and early 20th-century, some Chinese fighting against foreign powers believed that they could enter a shamanic trance and call upon Sun Wukong to possess them and thereby be granted his great martial arts abilities. Currently, there are a few temples devoted to the Monkey King in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In fact, some Chinese celebrate his "birthday" on the 16th day of the 8th month in the lunar calendar. I would love to know why this date was chosen.

I find the phenomenon of a literary figure becoming a god extremely fascinating. Journey to the West is written in Vernacular Chinese, which is much simpler than Classical Chinese. However, the majority of the people, comprising illiterate peasants, learned about Monkey's adventures through storytellers and stage plays. These people probably had a hard time separating fact from fiction since Buddhist monks often taught lessons through storytelling. Therefore, religion and folk literature mixed to become a strange hybrid in the minds of the common people. Martial deities are popularly worshiped as dispellers of bad fortune. I imagine the modern day worship of Sun Wukong serves a similar purpose.

Does anyone else know of other literary characters who were eventually deified?
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23-01-2015, 12:41 AM
RE: Literary characters worshipped as gods
Jesus maybe.
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23-01-2015, 01:33 AM
RE: Literary characters worshipped as gods
(23-01-2015 12:12 AM)ghostexorcist Wrote:  There is evidence that the ancient Chinese of the Chu Kingdom (c. 1030–223 BCE) revered the gibbon, the smallest of the extant apes, as a keeper of arcane knowledge. It was believed to have the ability to soak up life-prolonging energies and perform magical transformations. The creature was respected and not really worshiped, however. Evidence of an actual monkey cult active around the 13th-century is found in southern China. This may have been influenced by stories from the Ramayana, a 4th-century BCE Hindu epic, trickling into the country via merchants from Southeast Asia. A major character in the book is a monkey god with enormous strength called Hanuman.

Such indigenous and foreign primate stories eventually influenced the creation of the famous literary figure Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, from the Chinese classic Journey to the West (1592). The novel sees the simian character gain immortality and powers of transformation through Daoist austerities and later use his achievements to wreak havoc in heaven because the celestial hierarchy refuses to recognize him as a god. He is so powerful that the Buddha is called in to imprison him under an entire mountain range. Five hundred years later he is released to protect a Buddhist monk from all manner of monsters and demons on his quest to retrieve Buddhist scriptures from India.

What's interesting is the character became so popular that some people eventually began to worship him as a full-fledged god. For instance, during the Boxer Rebellion of the late 19th- and early 20th-century, some Chinese fighting against foreign powers believed that they could enter a shamanic trance and call upon Sun Wukong to possess them and thereby be granted his great martial arts abilities. Currently, there are a few temples devoted to the Monkey King in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In fact, some Chinese celebrate his "birthday" on the 16th day of the 8th month in the lunar calendar. I would love to know why this date was chosen.

I find the phenomenon of a literary figure becoming a god extremely fascinating. Journey to the West is written in Vernacular Chinese, which is much simpler than Classical Chinese. However, the majority of the people, comprising illiterate peasants, learned about Monkey's adventures through storytellers and stage plays. These people probably had a hard time separating fact from fiction since Buddhist monks often taught lessons through storytelling. Therefore, religion and folk literature mixed to become a strange hybrid in the minds of the common people. Martial deities are popularly worshiped as dispellers of bad fortune. I imagine the modern day worship of Sun Wukong serves a similar purpose.

Does anyone else know of other literary characters who were eventually deified?

L. Ron Hubbard industrialised this process...

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29-01-2015, 07:00 AM
RE: Literary characters worshiped as gods
(23-01-2015 12:12 AM)ghostexorcist Wrote:  In fact, some Chinese celebrate his "birthday" on the 16th day of the 8th month in the lunar calendar. I would love to know why this date was chosen.

This is the day after the Mid-Autumn Festival which centers around the moon. I can only guess Monkey's birthday is placed after this because, in the novel, he is loosely associated with Chang'e, the goddess of the moon.
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29-01-2015, 10:53 AM
RE: Literary characters worshiped as gods
It's much harder to find in the west because by the time Literary writing was forming, Christianity was taking hold.

Like mentioned above, you basically can call Xenu of Scientology a literary figure based on Hubbards nonsensical writing.

Gilgamesh seemed to have been worshiped at a time. He was a mix of part real king and part literary character. Though what was the difference between literary character and myth at the time really.

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29-01-2015, 11:05 AM
RE: Literary characters worshiped as gods
(29-01-2015 10:53 AM)ClydeLee Wrote:  It's much harder to find in the west because by the time Literary writing was forming, Christianity was taking hold.

Like mentioned above, you basically can call Xenu of Scientology a literary figure based on Hubbards nonsensical writing.

Gilgamesh seemed to have been worshiped at a time. He was a mix of part real king and part literary character. Though what was the difference between literary character and myth at the time really.

That's interesting. Thanks for the input.
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29-01-2015, 01:08 PM
RE: Literary characters worshiped as gods
(29-01-2015 10:53 AM)ClydeLee Wrote:  Gilgamesh seemed to have been worshiped at a time. He was a mix of part real king and part literary character. Though what was the difference between literary character and myth at the time really.

Indeed. The difference between "historical", "literary", and "religious" did not exist in the Classical world.

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29-01-2015, 01:12 PM
RE: Literary characters worshiped as gods
(29-01-2015 01:08 PM)cjlr Wrote:  Indeed. The difference between "historical", "literary", and "religious" did not exist in the Classical world.

I guess I find the East Asian example so interesting because it is so recent.
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29-01-2015, 01:27 PM
RE: Literary characters worshiped as gods
(29-01-2015 01:12 PM)ghostexorcist Wrote:  
(29-01-2015 01:08 PM)cjlr Wrote:  Indeed. The difference between "historical", "literary", and "religious" did not exist in the Classical world.

I guess I find the East Asian example so interesting because it is so recent.

It is quite interesting, but I think the reason the process is so notable is that it occurred in a cultural context without any centralised religious authority - unlike anything west of the Indus any time in the last two thousand years!

We know that in Classical times historical figures were later given religious makeovers (eg Asklepios), that religious figures could be and were invented (eg Sarapis), that all sorts of figures both historical and literary were purported to be of divine status or descent (such as, the ostensibly mortal characters in Homer all seem to be at most one or two steps removed from god and demigod ancestors - or the way Alexander and all the successors all claimed to be sons of Zeus, or Apollo, or so on) and that religious figures were also reinterpreted as historical figures (as per Euhemerus)... it's hard to clearly separate things.

But I'm not sure we could find any direct analogues to the account in the OP in that undifferentiated context. Perhaps something like the hero-cult worship of Achilles?
(and interestingly a lot of these ended up as local unofficial "saints" in latter days, which has never completely gone away)

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